‘Ridden roughshod’: Waste sector ‘confused’ after Sunak scraps bins policy that never existed

The waste sector has been left ‘confused’ after the prime minister scrapped proposals to require households to have seven separate bins – a policy that never existed – and DEFRA announced on the same day plans to rebadge its consistent waste collections plan.

cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Jaggery - geograph.org.uk/p/7564337

On Wednesday, prime minister Rishi Sunak delivered a last minute speech outlining a shift in the government’s strategy for reaching net zero by 2050, including plans to revoke or delay a series of existing – and some non-existing – net zero related policies. 

Included in this was an announcement to “scrap plans to force households to have seven different bins”. 

At first it was not clear exactly what Sunak was referring to, given there have never been plans for households to have seven different bins. However, it quickly became apparent that he was referring to the government’s plans for consistent waste collections in England. 

In the 2018 Waste and Resource Strategy, DEFRA outlined plans to require local authorities or waste management companies to ensure that the same core set of materials are collected from all households and businesses across the country. 

This core set of materials would be designated by the government and reviewed on a regulator basis, it would include a requirement to collect food waste separately on a weekly basis from all households. The intention was that this would boost recycling rates, which have been flatlining since 2015. 

The government consulted on these plans in 2021 and industry has been waiting for the government’s response ever since. Last week, the sector heard repeated reassurance from DEFRA that its response would be published “imminently”, with Tamara Finkelstein, the department's permanent secretary, stating in a Public Accounts Committee session that “we will very much imminently be publishing the [consultation] response”.

READ MORE: What has made waste the poor relation of environmental policy?

Following Sunak’s speech, it appeared that the government could be looking to scrap these reforms altogether. 

However, soon afterwards, in a briefing document seen by ENDS, DEFRA outlined that the environment secretary is now leading a new “pragmatic approach” to boost recycling rates. 

Instead of consistent collections, this will be called ‘Simpler Recycling’. The new system, which DEFRA has said will be outlined “shortly”, will ensure that all homes in England recycle the same materials. 

The document states that “whilst it was never the case that seven bins would be needed by households, this new plan ensures it”. 

In a statement, the Chartered Institute of Waste Management (CIWM), the trade body representing the waste industry, described the prime minister’s announcement as “confusing”. 

CIWM was “dismayed to hear the prime minister describing the consistent collection reforms as ‘diktat’ and ‘heavy handed’ given that the policy is about making household recycling easier”, it said. 

Lee Marshall, CIWM policy & external affairs director, said: “It is probably a first to have a prime minister scrap a policy that hasn’t been implemented and was never proposed in the first place. We have since received confirmation from DEFRA that the policy is still progressing, but is now badged as ‘Simpler Recycling’, a name change that is not needed and has the potential to cause further confusion.

“We have gone through two detailed and lengthy consultations and CIWM members have sat on numerous working groups to help DEFRA ensure these policy reforms were informed, insight-led and evidence-based. It feels as if this valuable knowledge has been ridden roughshod over by No.10 and we very much hope this is not the case. Now more than ever the sector can support government in delivering these vital resource and waste policy reforms and our insights should be valued.”

North London Waste Authority (NLWA), the UK’s second largest waste and recycling authority, also expressed concern that the announcement is “yet another” tactic to delay action. 

NLWA chair, Clyde Loakes, said: “The government is at least consistent on being inconsistent when it comes to action to improve recycling, with constant dither and delays. The government proposed its consistent collections reforms in 2018 and even now – a tortuous five years and four secretaries of state later – many important details are still unclear. 

“The lack of clarity and inaction by the government merely sows confusion and sends mixed messages to business and residents. We need decisive action, timings for any changes, and government funding to support local authorities’ increased costs as a result of any required changes, like the compulsory separate weekly food waste collections.”